Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review: No Man's Land

No Man's Land: 1918--The Last Year of the Great War
John Toland

No Man's Land was published in 1985, and I read it a few years later. I remember liking it very much. Since then, however, I've learned a lot--about World War I, and about other things as well--so I was curious to find out how it held up.

Pretty well, is the answer. There's a nice mix of soldier-level, general-level, and politician-level detail; the grunt's-eye view is particularly effective (and harrowing). There's a large cast of characters, but there's a who's who in the front, and Toland does a good job keeping them separated. Both sides' strategic thinking is clearly laid out. Not least, the writing is first-rate, and good enough to keep the attention of any reader with an interest.

No Man's Land biggest weakness is that it spends too much time on events in the nascent Soviet Union. Important? Sure. Interesting? Mostly. Relevant? Only if you're trying for a global overview of the year, which No Man's Land isn't. The main narrative, quite properly, is the hell of the Western Front. Everything else (Italy, the Middle East, the submarine menace) is handled synoptically; Russia should have been synopsized as well.

I suspect a 21st-century book of this sort would include more social and economic history. It certainly would have included more maps, which would have helped with following the tactical details. What it wouldn't have had was John Toland's one-on-one interviews with Great War veterans. There aren't any. That's reason enough to read No Man's Land.

Two of the best of Toland's rough contemporaries in the military history field are Walter Lord's Incredible Victory and Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day.

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